We are all called to recognize the dignity and worth of every single person. Whether it is as members of a community of faith or simply as members of the societies in which we live, we are called to respect all human life. This requires a particular concern for the most vulnerable, those most exposed to potential indifference and exploitation. Hubert Humphrey spoke of the moral test of government, defining it as “how that government treats those in the dawn of life, children, those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of the life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Humphrey was describing a mindset that parallels a consistent life or “whole life” ethic, one that advocates for the protection of all of society’s most vulnerable members.
If we are to reflect on one particular aspect of this moral test of government, the respect for, and protection of, the disabled, we must conclude thus far as a society we have fallen short. And for many pro-lifers, there has been a fundamental failure to work for the dignity and human flourishing of those with disabilities. This must end. We can only truly defend life if we defend all of the most vulnerable.
The passage of legislation in the 1970s, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited institutions that discriminated against disabled individuals from receiving federal funding, and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which established basic rights for children with disabilities in their educational environments, were among the first steps taken to ensure the protection of disabled Americans. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (with amendments passed in 2008), which prohibits the discrimination of the disabled in employment, education, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications, while crucial and certainly laudable, has not been enough. Greater advocacy on the behalf of the disabled, especially the severely disabled, is still desperately needed.
In the abstract, of course we view those who are disabled as deserving of assistance and equally worthy of living quality lives. However, we have been unable to back up those sentiments with real concrete action, particularly when it involves real economic costs. We have not devoted the necessary time, energy and resources to advocate for and implement policies which provide care for the disabled and allow those living with intellectual and physical disabilities to realize their potential and enjoy a quality of life that is compatible with their inherent human dignity and worth.
Discrimination against those with disabilities often begins in the womb. New technology in the medical field has helped to save countless young lives, but it has also allowed for increased discrimination against the disabled through the termination of their young lives. But the injustice extends beyond abortion.
We have not done enough to implement policies that support the disabled and their caretakers, legislation that would recognize their human dignity and enhance their quality of life. This is an indication that as a society, while we might voice our belief in helping those who need assistance, in reality, we view them as lesser; we treat them as though they are less deserving of opportunity, less deserving of an adequate quality of life. If we are not willing to make that admission, we will not make the changes that are necessary. We must recognize that if we are advocates for life–all life–care for the disabled is our responsibility and must be a part of our mission.
For those of us who are pro-life, it is crucial that we incorporate the needs of intellectually and physically disabled people into our legislative platform and work to ensure that our disabled brothers and sisters have access to education and employment opportunities, to health care that meets their unique needs and to other services that will ensure their quality of life and allow them to reach their full potential as persons.
True respect for life is the protection of that life from the moment of conception until natural death and the respect for human dignity at every stage of life in between. Refusing to see the intellectually and physically disabled as the “other” and insisting in our advocacy that they be afforded the same quality of life that the rest of us enjoy is the only way to maintain a consistent life ethic and to deserve the “pro-life” label.